Elgin Marbles: Scottish estate under scrutiny for holding ancient Greek sculptures

The long-standing dispute over the Elgin Marbles, a set of 17 ancient sculptures taken from the Parthenon temple in Athens by a British diplomat in the early 19th century, has taken a new turn as a Scottish estate is facing questions over its possession of some of the artefacts.

The Broomhall House collection

Broomhall House, the ancestral home of the Earls of Elgin, is located in Fife, Scotland. It is currently a luxury venue for weddings, events, and film productions. However, it also holds a private collection of ancient Greek artefacts, including some of the sculptures that Lord Elgin removed from the Parthenon between 1801 and 1812.

According to The National, a Scottish newspaper, the estate has been reluctant to disclose the details of its collection, which is not open to the public. The newspaper claims that it has seen photographs of some of the sculptures, which include a headless female figure, a male torso, and a fragment of a frieze.

The estate has also been accused of profiting from the artefacts, as it charges a fee for visitors who want to see them. The National reports that the estate’s website offers a “bespoke tour” of the collection for £250 per person, or a “private viewing” for £500 per person.

The controversy over the Elgin Marbles

The Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon Marbles, are considered to be one of the world’s most important cultural treasures. They were part of a 160-metre frieze that decorated the Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena on the Acropolis hill in Athens. The sculptures depict scenes from Greek mythology and history, and are regarded as symbols of freedom and democracy in Greece.

Scottish estate under scrutiny for holding ancient Greek sculptures

However, the sculptures were removed from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin, who was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which then ruled Greece. He claimed that he had obtained permission from the Ottoman authorities to take the sculptures, but no official document has ever been found to support his claim. He shipped the sculptures to Britain in 170 crates, and sold them to the British government in 1816. They were then transferred to the British Museum, where they have been on display ever since.

Greece has been demanding the return of the sculptures since it gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832. It argues that the sculptures are part of its national heritage and identity, and that they belong to the Parthenon, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It also claims that the sculptures were illegally removed by Lord Elgin, and that they have suffered damage and deterioration in the British Museum.

The British Museum, on the other hand, maintains that it has the legal ownership of the sculptures, and that it has the duty to preserve and display them for the benefit of the global public. It also argues that the sculptures are part of the world’s shared cultural heritage, and that they are better off in a museum than in a polluted and unstable environment. It also denies that the sculptures have been harmed in its care, and that it has invested in their conservation and research.

The latest developments in the dispute

The dispute over the Elgin Marbles has been reignited in recent years, as Greece has intensified its efforts to reclaim them. In 2009, Greece opened a new Acropolis Museum, which has a dedicated space for the Parthenon sculptures, with plaster casts of the missing ones. The museum aims to show the unity and coherence of the sculptures, and to highlight the contrast between the originals and the copies.

In 2014, Greece hired a team of international lawyers, led by human rights barrister Amal Clooney, to advise on the legal aspects of the case. The lawyers suggested that Greece could take the British Museum to the International Court of Justice, or seek mediation through UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency. They also proposed that Greece could offer a long-term loan of other ancient artefacts to the British Museum in exchange for the return of the Elgin Marbles.

In 2020, the British Museum announced that it had loaned one of the Parthenon sculptures, a headless figure of the river god Ilissos, to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, to mark its 250th anniversary. This was the first time that any of the sculptures had left the British Museum since they arrived in 1816. The move sparked outrage in Greece, which saw it as a provocation and a betrayal.

In 2021, the British Museum revealed that it had been in talks with the Greek authorities over a possible “cultural exchange” that could involve the temporary return of the Elgin Marbles. The museum’s chairman, George Osborne, a former chancellor of the exchequer, was reportedly keen to explore the idea of a long-term loan of the sculptures to Greece, as part of a wider collaboration on cultural and educational projects.

However, the idea of a loan was met with scepticism and resistance by both the British and the Greek governments. The British government, which has the final say over the fate of the sculptures, stated that it had no intention of changing the law that prevents the British Museum from permanently disposing of any of its collections. The Greek government, which has always insisted on the permanent return of the sculptures, stated that it would not accept any conditions or compromises that would undermine its claim of ownership.

The dispute over the Elgin Marbles also caused a diplomatic row between the UK and Greece in November 2021, when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak cancelled a planned meeting with his Greek counterpart, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, during his visit to Athens. The reason for the cancellation was reportedly that Mitsotakis had broken a promise not to raise the issue of the Elgin Marbles during the meeting, and had instead made a public appeal for their return in a newspaper article.

The future of the Elgin Marbles

The Elgin Marbles remain one of the most contentious and complex issues in the field of cultural heritage and international relations. The arguments for and against their return are based on different interpretations of history, law, ethics, and aesthetics. The debate also reflects the changing dynamics of power and identity in the global context, as well as the challenges and opportunities of cultural cooperation and dialogue.

The prospects for a resolution of the dispute seem uncertain and distant, as both sides remain firm and entrenched in their positions. However, some experts and observers have suggested that there may be room for compromise and creativity, such as exploring alternative forms of restitution, recognition, and reconciliation. For instance, some have proposed that the sculptures could be displayed in both countries, either physically or digitally, or that they could be jointly owned and managed by both parties.

The fate of the Elgin Marbles will ultimately depend on the willingness and ability of the British and the Greek governments, as well as the British Museum and the Acropolis Museum, to engage in constructive and respectful dialogue, and to find a mutually acceptable and beneficial solution. Until then, the sculptures will continue to be a source of controversy and fascination, as well as a reminder of the enduring legacy and value of ancient Greek culture.

By Ishan Crawford

Prior to the position, Ishan was senior vice president, strategy & development for Cumbernauld-media Company since April 2013. He joined the Company in 2004 and has served in several corporate developments, business development and strategic planning roles for three chief executives. During that time, he helped transform the Company from a traditional U.S. media conglomerate into a global digital subscription service, unified by the journalism and brand of Cumbernauld-media.

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